Culture  Political expression

Sina Queyras’s Expressway takes the poet in a new direction

It’s barely been a month since Sina Queyras found out that her most recent volume of poetry, Expressway, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award, but the Montreal-based writer seems pretty unfazed. Queyras, who is known for her innovative stylistic choices and technical experimentation, often delves into issues like female identity and the environment, all the while maintaining strong roots in modernist poetry.

Expressway takes its title from a central thematic concern that runs through many of the volume’s often formally structured poems. Queyras uses the cultural impact of expressways, the dominant modes of transportation in developed countries, as a starting point for an exploration of environmental, economic, political, and social change.  
It is a book that is, in many ways, a critique of modern society, and it’s also Queyras’s most politically and globally engaged work yet. She spoke of making this shift “very reluctantly. Expressway is a book that has always deeply frightened and disturbed me…. It was not something I really wanted to be writing about.” 
Queyras described the writing process as “a matter of trying to figure out a way to talk about the issues of our time, without being too on point, and without being pedantic…. It didn’t come easily.” However, despite the challenges involved, she maintained that poetry, like all creative expression, is, by necessity, politically grounded. “I think all work is political, particularly work that says it’s not political. I think that’s an incredibly political statement,” she explained. “[This work] is probably a bit more overtly political than I am comfortable with…. It struts its stuff a bit more than I would prefer my work to.”

Much of Expressway’s political engagement, Queyras emphasized, came from the global conditions during the period that the book was written, and the impact that time and place had on its subject matter. “[Expressway] was written at a time when it felt absolutely impossible not to be political,” she said. “It was written at the end of the Bush era, when nobody seemed to be talking about what was going on in front of everybody’s face. At least in America people weren’t. So at least to me, it seemed impossible not to be that direct.”  
One of the book’s longer poems is written in the voice of Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the famed Romantic poet. Though the rest of the book is grounded in modern life, Queyras is interested in the similarities between Romantic and contemporary reactions to change. She sees parallels between industrialization and the growing scale of war at the turn of the 19th century, and current societal transformations. 
“I can see Dorothy Wordsworth wandering around the New Jersey Turnpike,” she says, drawing the connection. “We forget that what we’re dealing with now, they were dealing with then, in a different form, but no less massive. And I think that’s one of the things that really ties the 18th century to our century – the scale of transformation, it’s just unbelievable.”

Like “Lines written many miles from Grasmere,” – a poem whose title makes explicit reference to Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey…” – much of Expressway’s content, as well as Queyras’s earlier work, reformulates found material. For Expressway, Queyras used sources as varied as Google search results, traffic reports, and personal narration. “I’m not really interested in receiving a divine poem,” Queyras said, explaining her process. “I’m interested in taking material and using it in different ways…. I think it was Tom Waits who said songs are everywhere in the air and you just have to reach out and grab them, and I think that’s very true. I think there’s more information out there than most of us can handle, and I think most of us are busy trying to shut it all out, because if you let it in, it can be overwhelming. So for me, it’s a matter of knowing when to open the floodgates, and when to keep them closed.” 
In Queyras’s work, collected materials are coupled with the rigourous application of formal techniques to the poems. For example, much of 2001’s Slip was written in the form of metred couplets, and Lemon Hound, published in 2006, consistently uses short prose sentences arranged to create lyrically powerful poems. 
Queyras described the formal aspect of her work as a way of enabling her to express difficult personal ideas, particularly in Slip, where “at some point the formal concerns took over. At some point the whole first section became an exercise in how to make a couplet, how to think about a metrically-charged line in contemporary setting. In a way, the backdrop for me was the personal and what was interesting were the formal concerns.”

Though Expressway’s subject matter differs from that of Queyras’s previous poetry, it’s clear that experiments with form are still central to her work. She explained the process that led to Expressway as “a formal argument. [The work] asks, why is it more palatable to read a poem in tercets than one in a Google-sculpted search? Why do we consider formal properties more important than just a list of statistics, for example? So a lot of the time, I’m saying the same things in different ways, trying to poke at the way in which we are willing to take in information.” 
Above all, Queyras points to poetry’s potential to impact the way people think. “I try to make space for things to happen,” she says of her work. “I don’t think Expressway has any answers at all, but I think it can evoke conversations or ways of thinking about our situation…. [Poetry] can lead protests, it can soothe souls. It can numb. It can also be used as propaganda to keep people silent. Poetry is not neutral.”